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Beating the Sun

Riccardo Iacono – English Channel swim 2016. Photo by Tim Denyer
I remember, just before the start, standing on the beach at Samphire Hoe and looking out to sea. All my previous sea swims involved swimming along the coast or swimming in circles around a bay, always staying close to shore. This swim was different however. For the first time I had to swim out, away from the shore, from one shore to another.

All I could see was the horizon, the flat line of  sea against sky, and in the foreground, the Viking Princess, my escort boat, waiting for me to enter the water.

It was quite a shock to look out and not have the end  in sight.

The signal for me to start my swim was marked by the sound of a horn. I’d forgotten to do my pre-swim arm swings and stretches. In fact I was quite unprepared. When I heard the horn I just jumped in. As I took my first few strokes, it gradually dawned on me, the immensity of the task at hand. What had I got myself into?

The question stayed with me throughout the swim. Where was I? What was I doing? Why?

The boat

From the outset I had problems swimming alongside the boat.  Whenever I focussed solely on my stroke I risked losing track of my position. My attention would drift back and forth between thinking about my stroke and keeping track of the boat. (Sometimes the boat would change course and I would end up swimming away from it. Other times the waves would carry me into the side of it. )

Feeds

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Feeding time. English channel swim 18 July 2016. Photo credit: Tim Denyer
I started the swim at 10.20 am. Feeds were every 30 minutes and would last about a minute each, during which time  Tim would check how I was doing and give me a quick chat. He’d say things like   “You’re  doing well. No need to keep sighting for France mate!  Just swim to your next feed” . So, I swam the channel in 30 minute chunks.

He told never to ask how far or how long there was to go. So I didn’t. I just thought about swimming and staying close to the boat. Swimming to my next feed. That was it.

There were times when I lost focus, where I had cramp or felt anxious about being stung by jelly fish, but I just had to keep going.

Madness

After countless hours i started to question my sanity.  What the hell was I doing in the middle of the sea?! It was such a far cry from the city; no roads, buildings or trees – nothing like swimming in the lido where I’d done  my training. 

“This”, I thought. “What I am doing . Doing the same thing over and over again. This is madness!”

Relativity

It was hard to get a sense of moving forward. The boat was always beside me and other sea vessels were too far away to get a proper measure of time and space and of moving in any particular direction or speed.  The only movement I was really aware of was of my body  moving through the water. The water passing over me.

Tim and John were observing and timing me and the boat had GPS tracking, so it was much easier for them to monitor my position and speed.

My main concern was with repetition; performing the same set of movements, checks and adjustments, maintaining my form.

In fact, I was so preoccupied with my keeping my stroke and swimming next to the boat that I  completely forgot why or where i was  going.

Forgetting

It was only when Tim told me we were in French inshore waters that I remembered that I was actually travelling, to France.  I thought “Right! What are you doing? You’re swimming the channel! Not in the channel, across it ! Get a move on! ”

So I sped up.

Judging by the sun it must have been at around 7pm. I wanted to get in by nightfall. So for 3 or 4 hours I raced. I raced against the sun.

John said I was swimming like a man possessed.

With every stroke it got darker and darker and darker. It was like a grand awakening. The end was in sight!

Or at least I thought it was.

As the sun began to set I knew I’d left it too late. I had another 3 more hours of swimming to do before reaching France.

Remembering

I don’t know why, but at some point in the middle of this I started thinking about my dad. I last saw him at the beginning of 2015, a couple of days before he died. He’d stopped eating and could barely stand. I remember helping him into bed. He said “I can’t go on. I can’t do it any more”. It was an upsetting thought.  I had to think of something else.

Swimming

Swimming in the Dark 

This was my first time swimming at night. I swam under a spotlight beside the boat. If I swam too far ahead or lost sight of the boat I’d be plunged into darkness and lose my bearings.

I could see the lights on the French coast. They appeared to be close, but I knew that what I could see wasn’t necessarily where I was going. I had to contend with the tide which was taking me along the coast, eastward.

It’s was hard to tell how far I had to swim . Of course, now the sun had set I knew we were reaching the end. But still I couldn’t see it.

The End.

Where is the end?

Is there an end?

When will it come?

Tim would say “Almost there! Almost there! Just a bit more to go!”

At one point he said “Okay, Riccardo . This is your last feed ”

So from that I assumed there was less than a 30 minutes of swimming to go. Several feeds later however, I was still in the water .

I didn’t know what was happening. I was exhausted,  feeling anxious and confused. I was in so much pain. My jaws and teeth were locked  tight.

I was expecting Tim to enter the water at any moment. This would have signalled that we approaching the shore. But he didn’t get in!

Why, if we were so close wasn’t he getting in ?!

It was torture.  Swimming in the dark. Not knowing.

My stroke, by the end had really deteriorated. I could barely lift my arms.

I was such a relief  when he finally jumped in.

The boat stopped offshore. Tim swam ahead. I followed the light on the back of his swim cap. He was swimming so fast ! I struggled to keep up. My arms were heavy and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t turn them any faster. Eventually  the water was too shallow to swim in and I could feel the bottom with my hands. I scrambled to my feet and we walked up onto this deserted moonlit  beach.

We had arrived in France, at place called Wissant.

It was one o’clock in the morning. I’d been swimming for  fourteen and a half hours.

Reg calculated that I’d swam a total of 30 miles

It was strange day and a very strange experience.

Swimming in Video

The swim was documented in video by John Hartley. He shot about 2 hours of footage on  mini DV and HD using a GoPro. Tim also shot some clips on his iPhone.

I’m now in the process of revisiting the swim via this footage, editing the material to try to balance my experience in the water with John and Tim’s view of the swim from the boat. We each have our own set of interests, our own reasons for being there and looking.

John has expressed an interest in the “Outlandish” nature of the swim, the situation of being offshore, following a line, moving in a direction. He is also interested in the different scales of activity taking place, the small repetitive action of swimming, the catch and pull, the movement of waves and changing light, the shipping traffic, fishing, time, space. Its a very open view. His camera work follows me moving into and out of frame. I appear to be criss crossing the screen as I swim toward and away from the boat.

Tim’s video clips were posted to his twitter account during the swim to provide status updates.

John: ” When you’re swimming you see the bubbles. You see your hands. your arms and you’re thinking about this repetition, these very small scales around you. But then they add up. Something that is very tiny is very big and geographical, a cartographic scale; end to end. There is also a scale of activity. You know, the activity is tiny; catch, pull, recover. But its also enormous. “

Tim:

Editing now .

Swimming in video

Ink on Paper

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Untitled, ink on paper, (148 x 210mm), Riccardo Iacono 2016

I did a painting in the back  garden today and then went for a swim. Now i’m at my studio. Struggling to think clearly, struggling to be with myself.

I need to do a clear out, but  what to clear?

This is why i swim, why i make art, to create or find some kind of clearance, an opening. When I look out to sea, I see space to roam, a blank canvas. Not that it is ever really blank. Its alive.

I get in and make a mark and take it from the there.

In terms of destination, I have an idea of where I’d like to be, but in order to get there my attention has  to be focussed on getting a sense of where I am.

Swimming is painting. Painting is swimming. The whole process is a performance, an improvisation and dialogue. Physical feeling is coupled with emotional feeling.

It’s quite difficult to know where the beginning is , where it ends, where the edges are. Everything is liquid. By way of flow and contra flow I find myself in a place and then i get lost . I forget where I was

and now, I’m not sure where I am . So it goes on.

With each stroke water is displaced. I relocate. My attention shifts back and forth between my finger tips and toes, between the application and release  of pressure.   

I read water and it reads me. We flow in sync, harmony, counterpoint.

I breathe in,  breathe out.

As I breathe, time passes . There is no return.

Everything changes, is moving .

I just made a scribble and now I’m going home.

The garden is where I greet the day.

Tomorrow, I’ll probably swim some more.

 

Clear water 

 

Swimming,  what do I get from it?

Touch. It’s all about touch, physical contact; feeling

Today I was focusing on my breathing  ,

Breathing out through my nose, slowly.

I find that long shallow breathing keeps my  body close to the surface, which creates less resistance when moving forward.

The timing of the  breath, exhaling to coincide with different phases of ones stroke, contributes to a fuller, steadier catch and more powerful connection with the water. I find this  particularly noticeable  when doing  butterfly.

When exhaling I seem to have greater range of arm movement.

On single arm fly I’ve managed to do 50 metres in 12 strokes.

Full stroke varies between 13 strokes (easy) and 18 strokes (fast) .

I need to work on my kick.